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Anti-Spam Solutions for Nonprofits

Originally published on the as Anti-Spam Solutions for Nonprofits at TechSoup.

If you’re not familiar with the term, spam messages are annoying, unsolicited email messages (usually advertisements for bogus products). Depending on who you listen to, spam constitutes between 50 and 90 percent of all email traffic. In addition to violating the law by sending you emails that you didn’t ask for, spammers often use their messages to perpetrate fraud on the people who respond. Unless you’ve been offline for the past 15 years, you know all this and you’d never reply to a spam email. Nonetheless, this deluge of unwanted emails can overwhelm you, fill your inbox and drown out legitimate messages. Furthermore, spam messages often contain spyware, viruses and other forms of malware.

As an IT manager or accidental techie, you have two main strategies for fighting spam. First, educate yourself and your colleagues about how spam works. The message here boils down to: Be careful about when and where you divulge your email address. See Things You Can Do to Prevent Spam for more information on the education and training approach. Second, you can use technology to battle spam. The rest of this article will focus on anti-spam technologies, also known as spam filters.

How Much Spam Is Too Much?

While no anti-spam technology stops every nuisance email, you shouldn’t settle for a situation where spam affects your office’s productivity. The threshold of annoyance is different for everyone, but if more than a handful of messages slips through your filter every day, you should change the settings or consider a different solution. Don’t just rely on your own impression; ask your colleagues as well. They might receive more spam than you do, depending on how long they’ve had their email address and how careful they’ve been with it. Also, look at the security impact. If you’ve had virus outbreaks related to spam, you may need a better filter, even if the overall volume is low.

If you’re trying to make the case for a spam filter to your boss or your board (or yourself), check out Google’s Return on Investment Calculator. It gives you a rough estimate of the money and staff time you’re losing to spam each year. Bear in mind that Google has its own filtering solution that it wants to sell you.

Types of Spam Filters

As with most technologies, spam filters come in all shapes and sizes. They range from free, lightweight desktop software utilities to expensive, complicated hardware devices.

Desktop spam filters.

A quick search will bring up hundreds of free and low-cost spam filters that you can install on your desktop. Email programs such as Microsoft Outlook and Mozilla Thunderbird usually have some spam filtering functionality built in. If you feel your email client is underperforming in this respect, consider a desktop spam filter such as Mailshell, SpamAssassin or SpamBayes. Mailshell is available for donation or at a discount at TechSoup Stock.

Some desktop filters are standalone programs, while others operate as plug-ins for your email client. Either way, make sure the spam filter works with your operating system and your preferred email client. Also, while desktop filters are appropriate for small offices, they don’t scale well. If you have more than a handful of full-time staff, consider working with your Internet service provider (ISP) or implementing one of the enterprise-level spam filters mentioned in the following section.

Enterprise-level spam filters.

If you host your own email server, you’ll need an enterprise-level spam filter of some sort.

ISP spam filters.

Almost all Internet service providers implement some level of spam filtering. However, they often block only the most egregious and easily identified spam. So relying on the ISP’s filter won’t work for most organizations. Also, if you see an ad for an ISP-level spam filter, it’s probably not suited to your situation.

Spam-Filtering Techniques

There are hundreds of different filtering technologies, and these strategies change all the time in response to the changing attacks used by spammers. In other words, there’s an arms race going on behind the scenes. A list of every technique would be tedious and quickly outdated. However, most of these approaches fall into four categories. Understanding these categories may help you evaluate and implement a spam filter in your organization. Bear in mind also that any spam filter you choose probably relies on more than one approach. For more detailed information, read Ten Spam Filtering Methods Explained or Wikipedia’s article on Anti-Spam Techniques.

Evaluation Criteria for Spam Filters

The standard criteria for evaluating all technology obviously apply to spam filters as well. How expensive is it? How complicated? How much time does it take to learn? Does it integrate well with our existing infrastructure? Is it reliable? How good is the documentation, tech support and user community?

In addition to these general considerations, spam filters have their own unique characteristics. In particular, you should think about speed, convenience, precision and recall:

Further Resources

If you want to learn more about controlling this nuisance, check out TechSoup’s Spam Prevention Toolkit. You’ll find an article there to help you ensure that your bulk emails aren’t accidentally flagged as spam. A related piece describes the CAN-SPAM Act and the basic precautions you need to take to avoid violating that law. Getting Clueful: Five Things You Should Know about Fighting Spam explains why spam fighting will always require trade-offs and imperfect solutions.

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Comments»

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